Garrett Graff describes 'The First Campaign' to go truly digital
How can the 2008 presidential candidates best speak to a tech-savvy, global generation?
In 1948, embattled incumbent Harry S Truman embarked on a cross-country, whistlestop tour, in a last ditch effort to salvage his stake in the presidential election. The situation was dire. Infighting had decimated the Democratic Party's base, shattering it into a collection of small tent movements; Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond threatened from one direction, and Republican Thomas Dewey from the other. Voters, Truman reasoned, would have to be appealed to directly – palm to palm, and face to face.Skip to next paragraph
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As Garrett Graff writes in The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House, Truman, who eventually covered thousands of miles by train, was the last winning candidate to reach – in person – such a wide swath of the electorate. By 52, television had arrived in American homes, and Dwight D. Eisenhower was using "I Like Ike" cartoon shorts and canned "conversations" to bridge the technological divide.
Strategists began to think in terms of infotainment: long policy speeches and public discourse were out, and the age of the horse race was ushered in.
Graff, an editor at Washingtonian magazine, is fascinated by the revolution that took root after 48, mostly because of its similarity to the 2008 election. Like Eisenhower – and later, Nixon and Kennedy – the Democratic and Republican nominees will battle on a new frontier, one rife with opportunity.
"[Changes] wrought by the Web, the BlackBerry, the camera phone, and the like – changes that give ordinary people access to more information (and more kinds of information) than ever before in history – are being brought into politics," Graff argues. "This new technology is a defining feature in the generation of American citizens just now coming of age, a generation that all the candidates are desperate to reach and persuade and one that has joined the voting population only since the 2000 election."
Yet evidence abounds that the candidates have not yet mastered the subtleties of digital campaigning. Consider the case of George Allen, the would-be Republican candidate, who was filmed making racially disparaging remarks at a stop in Southwest Virginia last year. A clip was posted to YouTube, where it became a hit; Allen's chances at the nomination were ground into dust.